Privacy groups criticize proposed $8.5 million Google settlement

The money is meant for organizations who must use it to help protect privacy on the Internet

By Loek Essers, IDG News Service |  IT Management

Five U.S. privacy groups have opposed a proposed US$8.5 million settlement with Google in a class action lawsuit over search privacy, as it fails to require Google to change its business practices, they said.

Google was sued in October 2010 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The Internet giant allegedly transmitted user search queries to third parties without their knowledge or consent in order to enhance advertising revenue and profitability. Google shares search queries "via referrer headers," according to a court document.

The headers identify the address of a Web page that linked to the current page. When a Google user clicks on a link from Google's search results page, the owner of the website that the user clicks on will receive from Google the user's search terms in the referrer header because the search terms are included in the URL.

The search terms can contain users' real names, street addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers and social security numbers, all of which increases the risk of identity theft, according to the original complaint. Those queries can also contain highly-personal and sensitive issues, such as confidential medical information, racial or ethnic origins, political or religious beliefs or sexuality, according to the complaint.

On Monday, the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit filed a motion for settlement. Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million in cash into a settlement fund, according to the motion.

The proposed agreement provides for a single settlement class, in this case all persons in the U.S. who submitted a search query to Google at any time from Oct. 25, 2006 until the date of the notice of the proposed class action settlement, according to the document.

The money however will not be divided among all Google users in the U.S., but rather be paid to organizations that can protect the interests of individuals.

Part of the settlement fee is meant to cover settlement administration expenses and part will be paid to the World Privacy Forum, Carnegie-Mellon, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and Stanford Center for Internet and Society among others, according to the document.

The recipients must agree to devote the funds to promote public awareness and education, and/or to support research, development, and initiatives, related to protecting privacy on the Internet, according to the proposed settlement.

Besides a monetary settlement, Google also agreed to notify users as to its conduct so that users can make informed choices about whether and how to use Google search.

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